Wednesday, January 29, 2003

The Look Matters

I tend to believe that one's character is greatly influenced by the refinements one displays. An appreciation for such things as chequered Hermes scarves and Lalique crystal statuettes, for Bulgari black diamonds and the understated elegance of a sleek Vacheron-Constantin timepiece, for the clean lines of a Jaguar motorcar and the subdued taste of a Merlot from the vineyards of Boschendal, all serve to mold and develop the better qualities of the human character. Now certainly such items can become little more than an ostentatious display, but they also remind us of distinctions between the rare and the common, between the beautiful and the homely, between the noble and the base.

In a democratic age, distinctions are not often appreciated as they are considered signs of aristocratic privilege. Actually, in today's world, many are the people who can afford Hermes and Bulgari, but fewer are those who really appreciate their worth. In any case, this aristocratic distinction is more important, more essential than we might admit today. Prior to the twentieth century it was a widely held view that the specific virtue of an aristocrat was his liberty. The aristocrat was servant to none. As such, he was a free man both politically and materially. It was the aristocrat alone who could appreciate the value of precious goods, fine foods. And yet even these were not his master because his liberty was intrinsic to his noble character. The result was that this free man valued the better things in life, but had no pretensions regarding them. His own liberty, his freedom meant he could speak freely to his fellow citizens without evasion or condescension. He could, as Kipling said, "walk with kings - nor lose the common touch."

It is this combination of refinement and conviction, of indifference and appreciation that suggests a free man. In this vein, I came across an article about the Georges de Paris. De Paris has been the tailor to American presidents since Lyndon Johnson. He was the man who made the suit worn by George W. Bush during last night's State of the Union address. He is, as his name suggests, French. To my mind, it is this gentility that is so impressive among the French and the Europeans in general. The great merit of the Americans, on the other hand, is their honesty, their forthright speech. When these two qualities come together, they are impressive to behold, and not merely for reasons of trans-Atlantic dialogue or aesthetics. These qualities are the virtues of a free man and they are among the hallmarks of a civilization.

For those who mock George W. Bush as a boor, they might do well to look at his refinements, to see how he is both blunt of speech, and subtle in manner. And who better to attest to this than a French tailor, a master in the selection of fine clothes. Georges de Paris compares the younger Bush to Ronald Reagan, saying: "Reagan spoke alot...Like George W., he knew how to appreciate the quality of fabrics." By contrast, de Paris is said to have Gallic disdain for Clinton who was "demanding, cold and always occupied...he was unaware of me completely." And indeed, could we really imagine Bill Clinton giving the sort of speech George W. Bush gave last night? Better yet, when he spoke of free people, could we really believe it?


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